A Tribute to Suresh Sharma, Who Truly Inhabited the Life of the Mind

The historian, anthropologist and theorist passed away on May 16.

Suresh Sharma, a historian, anthropologist and theorist, was one of those rare people who can truly be said to inhabit the ‘Life of the Mind‘ – to use the title of Hannah Arendt’s Gifford Lectures. For Arendt, the life of the mind connected thinking with judging, involving the discernment of good and evil, say, in contrast to Eichmann’s thoughtlessness. The news of Suresh’s passing on May 16 came as a shock. When I last heard, his health had been improving following a surgery that had gone horribly wrong.

Suresh and I belonged to several overlapping circles. There was, to begin with, one connected to Jaipur. His wife, Deepa Bhalla’s family was from Jaipur. My family, Francine and Daya Krishna, lived in C6 on the Rajasthan University campus and they were in C6A. The families were good friends. M.M. Bhalla was my mother’s senior colleague in the English Department and Daya Krishna’s book on Social Philosophy was dedicated to him, to the many conversations they had had over the garden gate.

We both became professors together. I joined the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in 2002, connecting with its worlds of thought and action via Lokayan. Suresh was the director of CSDS from 2004 to 2007. Dharampalji was a much respected figure for both of us – Suresh organised a discussion around his pathbreaking work at the Centre. Ramchandra Gandhi was another important link – he gave a series of lectures on the Mandukya Upanishad sponsored by the Centre, which unfortunately never became a book. When Daya Krishna passed away, Suresh convened a memorial meeting at the India International Centre.

We also had a Madhya Pradesh connection, indeed, a Bhopal one, as the city had become a fulcrum for many intellectual initiatives. My aunt, Pramila Kumar, was a well-known geographer and involved with Eklavya’s initiative of rewriting school texts. Her husband, Satyen Kumar, was a well-known Hindi writer and close friend of other writers, including Manzoor Ahtesham, Nirmal Verma, Krishna Sobti and the poets Gagan Gill and Ashok Vajpeyi.

Suresh was in and out of Bhopal doing fieldwork in Bastar between 1983 and 1986, and one can identify the many conversations that constituted the backdrop of his book, Tribal Identity and the Modern World (1994). Bhopal itself was being envisaged as a hub of museums: Suresh was advisor to the spectacular Museum of Man which foregrounds the ways of life of the Agaria, Baiga and Gond. Bharat Bhavan included a folk art complex, and a Tribal Museum would be opened later.

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J. Swaminathan’s books, The Magical Script and The Perceiving Fingers were published by Bharat Bhavan in 1983 and 1987 and Suresh acknowledges his debt to Swami’s view that tribal art exists “amongst us and alongside us,” and can be one of the “contemporary expressions” of our times.

The canvas Suresh’s book refers to is a broad one beginning with Fernand Braudel’s identification of the industrial revolution in the long sixteenth century (1450-1650), which was a major transition for Europe involving the eclipse of vast nomadic regimes by sedentary economies. With the victory of the Holy League over the Ottoman Empire at Lepanto at 1571, the “Christian Mediterranean” became the fount of power and civilisation. In Asia, however, nomadic steppes continued to thrive.

Suresh argues that a tribal mode is a “complex of beliefs which shape the sensibility of civilisation, not purely of production or progress.” He contests the old tribe-civilisation binary of colonial anthropology highlighting tribal-non-tribal interactions over three millennia in India. Indeed, tribal distinctness is in close proximity with what is referred to as non-tribal, with kheti and penda being modes of livelihood for centuries in Abujmarh. Suresh’s focus is on modes of livelihood rather than modes of production.

In an interview with Udayan Vajpeyi, Suresh has spoken beautifully of the “pagan”. In Abrahamic religions, absolute truth is known through revelation. Modernity from Christian traditions has also contributed to the ideas of shahadat (martyrdom) and service.

In pagan worldviews, broadly speaking, there is no idea of the creator but it is also believed that there is no place, no time and no language in which truth has not expressed itself. In India, there was always a dialogue between samaj and sampradaya – the social and the religious – even though many sects considered themselves as possessing param satya (highest truth).

In pagan societies, protection is extended to all species, not just to the human. Suresh gives several illustrations: Asoka’s hospitals for animals, Adivasi women who are known not to eat eggs and the prohibition on hunting pregnant animals or on fishing during the monsoon which is the breeding season. Chandni Chowk in Delhi still has a Jain hospital for animals.

Modern consciousness believes it has bestowed on us the universal, the ideas of progress and prosperity and of freedom. But in the Adivasi way of life, Suresh identifies evidence of an everyday eternal pagan universality. Slash and burn is viewed as the most primitive livelihood, but in fact, has a minimal ecological footprint. The Agaria had a great tradition of iron smelting that was used by a Collector in Sagar to make a swinging bridge, he points out. Raipur had one of the largest concentrations of Agaria smelters.

Modernity has been particularly cruel to Adivasis. Their faith in their own world has been eroded and they enter the market at the lowest level as unskilled workers, leaving their own skills behind. The modern world might view them with compassion, but does not recognise the deep truth of their existence.

The Adivasis are drawn to the modern world even as there is also fear and anger, but the supreme irony is that they do not recognise the truth and beauty of their own world, Suresh comments. The Maoists see them in terms of the politics of exploitation, a politics which believes that they can attain equality only when they lose the philosophical bases of the truth and beauty of their world, Suresh maintains.

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Suresh’s interest in Gandhi was an early one. Gandhi invokes the rhythms of folk-tribal living as the truly resilient realm of Indian civilisation furthest removed from colonialism, he writes. Modern industrial civilisation claims to provide universals as categories, definitions and values. Gandhi is the first one from the victimised side to suggest that this is based on the ruins and plunder of other lands. Suresh Sharma and Tridip Suhrud’s critical edition of the Hind Swaraj is the first three-language edition which brings the Gujarati original in conversation with the English.

Gandhi’s critique of modern civilisation from outside the ambit of modern discourse was an act of great courage, the editors assert, as it was undertaken by a person not well-known either intellectually or politically and argues for non-violence in the struggle against oppression and injustice.

The interest in Indian thought was constant. I recall a lecture by G.P. Deshpande on Vinoba in which Suresh commented on four intellectual giants with Vinoba having the stature of Gopinath Kaviraj, Hazari Prasad Dwivedi and Tagore. The environmental activist Kishore Saint later sent me a translation of Vinoba’s message to Adivasis (1959) that spells out the connection between gram swaraj and Adivasis that Gandhi envisaged and Vinoba detailed in his vision of gram dharma as vishwa dharma on which he grounded the Bhoodan (Making the Gift of Land) movement.

It is wrong to see Adivasis as without culture, Vinoba asserts. He describes the Rgveda as Adivasi scripture since it describes the culture, feelings, worship and lifestyles of mobile peoples. Vinoba advocates gram dharma for the postcolonial moment, just as swadeshi dharma was propagated to gain freedom from colonial rule. Its components include village autonomy, a central role of the gram sabha, village-level planning, viewing the entire village as a community, practicing sarvodaya, production in accordance with the skills of the village and consumption of village-made goods and the collective ownership of land as the basis of gram swaraj.

Vinoba’s text is a virtual manifesto for the later Gaon Ganrajya (Village Republic) movement emphasising claims to water, forest and land that would lead to two landmark enactments, the Provision of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act in 1996 and the Forest Rights Act in 2006.

Suresh was articulate in both languages, Hindi and English. His interests ranged from India to China and from language and art. I recall a conversation with him on the power of the state in China that for at least one millennium had a minister for the diaspora. His essay in memory of Syed Haider Raza is based on his 2007 conversation with the artist on Shunya aur Aakar, Nothingness and Form where he reflects on the bindu or point that is both nothingness and infinite possibility.

Indeed, yogic thought reflects on the void preceding self-realisation. Suresh refers to form as being inseparable from formlessness in the Indic philosophical imaginary. Raza concludes beautifully, “Art represents hope beyond knowledge.”

Suresh’s comments had enormous staying power for me and for some others. One was on the idea of heresy being the marker of the Abrahamic religions. It has spurred me into organising a conference on the subject later next year. I came to inhabit Suresh’s office in the heritage building of CSDS after he left – his presence continues in the room with its elegant woodwork and especially in the corner where he would make the most perfect cup of Darjeeling tea, suggesting how the quest for truth, beauty and the good must go together.

Shail Mayaram is a historian and political anthropologist.